OPINION: Don’t buy Blue Castle’s claims of progress in building nuke plant

Utah has many annual traditions, such as rushing up the Cottonwood Canyons on powder days or reveling in the lights of Temple Square during the Christmas season.

In the past couple years, we’re developing a new one: Guffawing when the company that wants to build the Green River nuclear reactors unveils a “big” development. Their periodic news releases are little more than an empty illusion, designed to create the appearance of momentum, even as Blue Castle Holdings’ southern Utah nuclear plans remain somewhere between stalled and dead.

Unfortunately, the most recent announcement of a “deal” between Blue Castle and a major nuclear firm apparently snookered The Salt Lake Tribune, which last month ran a story headlined, “Westinghouse to Build Utah Nuclear Plant.”

Of course, we know that’s not going to happen, not after learning last fall during our trial challenging the project’s water rights that Blue Castle has raised just $500,000 from outside investors since CEO and former state Rep. Aaron Tilton formed the company in 2007. Considering the company needs about $100 million to apply to federal officials for a federal permit – not to mention the $20 billion or so they would need to build the reactors – their plan is a bit, um, underfunded.

It’s also not going to happen because utilities in the West have universally shunned new nuclear power. Rocky Mountain Power spokespeople periodically make clear that new nuclear is not in their plans. In fact, no utility in the West is planning on investing in new nuclear, leaving Blue Castle with not just no money to build their project – but no hopes of selling the expensive source of power they can’t afford to build. Yikes.

Even so, announcing a big contract with a huge nuclear company to build reactors is a big deal, right? Sure, except that’s not what actually happened. Read the press release that Westinghouse sent out and what they actually agreed to do was to “work together to develop a scope of activities for enabling the Blue Castle Project under a definitive agreement…”

Let’s translate that tortured language: The two companies have decided they’ll soon start planning to make a plan. In other words, they’re talking. Not investing, or building, or signing a contract, or committing. Talking about planning.

Blue Castle’s ludicrously positive spin on its stalled project has reared its sad head before. Last spring, the company sought to get the Utah Legislature to force the TransWest transmission company to “tie in” to the Green River nuclear reactors, a move that would have possibly killed that company’s serious and important bid to move wind power from Wyoming to southern California.

Thankfully, the adults in the room won out. Far from requiring TransWest to tie transmission into the nuclear project, Blue Castle’s bid was whittled down to what amounts to no more than a requirement that TransWest “inform” Blue Castle of its plans.

That less-than-impressive outcome didn’t stop Blue Castle from announcing that the legislation “ensures access to new transmission capacity solicitation” in its usual indecipherable hyperbole.

Similarly, in 2013, Blue Castle attempted to force Utah ratepayers to shoulder nuclear power’s sky-high costs. This situation ended embarrassingly when the bill’s sponsor publicly withdrew his support for the measure on the Senate floor. How did Tilton report this significant setback for Blue Castle? By trumpeting that utilities “must consider nuclear” in their long-term planning … something they were already doing (and roundly rejecting) for decades.

One has to admire Tilton’s moxie, his apparently tireless ability to hype his dying dream, even as evidence to the contrary mounts. One relevant fact: Blue Castle claims it’s preparing a permit application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the next step on the long road to construction. But records show that Blue Castle hasn’t even communicated with the NRC since 2011.

It’s past time for Blue Castle to admit what we all know: This project is going nowhere fast. It’s past time for the rest of us to get back to the hard work of actually planning Utah’s energy future, rather than endlessly circling the drain of Tilton’s failing nuclear dream.

Christopher Thomas is executive director of HEAL Utah.